Big Food: The Evolution of the Food Industry

I learned two key things about food as an eight-year-old boy: It could be fun, and it was serious business. My father would come home from his “food factory” like a real-life Willy Wonka, laden with crazy products for which my brothers and I were the test subjects. We ate chocolate-stuffed chicken (delicious ooze), chicken pop tarts (a tad too dry and fruity), shredded green chicken (that is, chicken made to look like salad – quite like eating rubber spinach), and chicken grilled cheese (in which the chicken replaced the bread – likely the greasiest and most indulgent idea ever).

My father believed in the food industry and lived to add fun to food, especially for children. He didn’t know about the damaging effects of processed food; he simply wanted to see me and my brothers laugh and smile at the foods he created, and he hoped that children from other families would too. He believed in Big Food for little people. And to me, my father was the face of the food industry.

It is an industry that I have often thought of as the bedrock of human civilization. The pursuit of sustenance is one of evolution’s primary driving forces. Societies were once built around people’s need to live in places that would provide enough food to survive and thrive. However, with the advent of agriculture, everything changed. Today, the majority of the human population – 54%, according to the UN – live in urban areas, where they are entirely removed from the mechanics of food production.

Now, 12,000 years after the First Agricultural Revolution, the food industry is a societal behemoth. It pumps out copious amounts of nutritionally deficient foods to the developed world, leaving little, if nothing, for those in the developing world and turning the planet into a wheezing, fatigued mess. After decades of booming business, this imbalance of important priorities – like health, distribution, and environmental impact – is just now being addressed.

The Grand Aspirations of Big Food

From its earliest days, Big Food has always had a grand mission: feeding the entire world. However, in the process of increasing farming yields and building multinational businesses, the industry overlooked the negative impact it was having on the lives of communities and individuals.

Still, for my family and many others like it, Big Food was a miraculous provider. It helped us realize dreams that would have felt like pure fantasy prior to the Second World War, particularly in Europe. In 1945, my grandparents found themselves in a displaced person’s camp in Bamberg, Germany. Having run a grocery store in Budapest prior to the war, my family understood what it meant to be nourished and to provide nourishment. For them, food fed the soul as well as the body: Eating was an event. Meals were family occasions where people came together to experience food that tasted great and had been prepared with care. Food had more value then than it does now, in part because it was a much scarcer resource in the pre-Big Food era.

When the first Friedmanns crossed the Atlantic and began life in Montreal, Quebec in 1954, the resources that governments and businesses had previously invested in their chemical arsenal found their way into agriculture. The 1950s saw chemical fertilizers and pesticides saturate farms. It was the first time that food production was properly scaled for mass consumption; it was the Space Age of food. Food was affordable and could be prepared quickly, causing the experience of family meals to shift. It was also during the 1950s that Big Food was joined in many households by another new family member: the television. Over the next 50 years, the two became nearly inseparable in many family dynamics, as food was shoveled down by people joined in their focus on a singular point.

It’s easy to look back on the damage caused by high-calorie, sugary, over-processed, and packaged foods, as well as the removal of the ritual of mealtimes, as irresponsible, short-sighted decisions; however, for my family and many others, this was the first time that three affordable meals could be guaranteed every single day. By the time I was born in 1972, Big Food had provided for my family in ways they had never before dreamed of. My grandfather and father had been running their own food business for seven years and were part of the movement that made food a global industry. Seemingly overnight, international flavors were no longer reserved for high-end restaurants. Palates diversified, and the world became a little bit smaller. This meant that I grew up in a house where food was diverse and plentiful. The sort of hunger that my grandparents had experienced was completely alien to me.

The Elephant in the Room: Excess

Over the next two decades, my father didn’t question his relationship with food. He thought of himself as a man who knew food. He had dedicated his life to it, and in 1998 he invented Dino Buddies: breaded chicken pieces that resemble long-dead reptiles. Food for my father was fun – he made it quirky. He saw no downside to Big Food. It had given him the means to feed his family and had turned him into a successful businessman. The industry had given our family so much that we all overlooked the elephant in the room.

To be perfectly frank, we weren’t overlooking the elephant in the room – we were overlooking four of them. I mean no disrespect to my father, grandfather, or two uncles, but by the mid-2000s – a time when Super Size Me was asking groundbreaking questions about the fast food industry – they collectively weighed about 2,000 pounds. My father had become the physical embodiment of Big Food. His profits and waistline had expanded at the same rate, and he was on the precipice of catastrophe.

It was a blood infection that finally woke us all up. He had been blinded by the optimism Big Food has instilled in people. Lying in the hospital on life support, my father had a realization: Big Food had fed him, but food can and should do more than that. Food should nourish us, not destroy our health. It should bring people together, and even in times of plenty, it should be treated with the same intentional gravitas as it is by people who don’t have enough of it. Fortunately, my father recovered from his illness, and with this newfound purpose at heart, he sold his first business and started Tolerant, a company that makes legume-based pasta. In this way, he contributed one small piece to the multi-billion-dollar organic food revolution.

What Big Food Can Still Do For Us

Technological advancements, together with an emergence of lifestyle-based diseases, have reopened the discussion around the sustenance provided by the food industry. How can Big Food feed an ever-expanding population without destroying the planet or slowly drip-feeding foods full of excess fat, protein, simple sugars, and difficult-to-spell chemical additives?

Over the next decade, the food industry will be forced to take up the task of providing nourishment, not just calories. Finally, a cultural awakening is occurring surrounding the damaging effects of fast food on health – both human health and the health of the planet. This awakening is powering new ideas. By considering multiple possibilities, we can ensure that we are anticipating the changes to come and preparing for the future of food design. The future isn’t certain, but by understanding human needs and technological advances, we can begin to paint a picture of possible food futures, such as these:

/ Gut Harmony

The proliferation of increasingly sophisticated ingestible technologies could signal an important change. Such devices could soon be used to monitor a user’s gut condition in real time and to provide that user with information about what they are lacking nutritionally. These devices would help consumers understand not only what they’re craving, but also what they need to consume (or eliminate) to help their bodies and minds operate to their fullest potential.

/ Skyline Farming

Skyline farms would shatter the cultural construct of farming as a pastoral pastime. The cultivation of farms within cities on a global scale would give consumers the complete farm-to-table transparency they desire. Additionally, the utilization of urban space for plants would result in cleaner city air, and it would also reduce the need to fell more forests in the name of farming. With the use of skyline farming, the cities of the future could be self-sufficient, as opposed to simply being a drain on rural and natural resources.

/ Drone Foragers

Drone foragers would harvest wild, undomesticated foods. These drones, designed based on the belief that true nourishment can only come from natural sources, would be equipped with olfactory and visual sensors to enable them to selectively pick food. The nourishment people would gain from these sources would be about more than diversifying their palates – rather, the food gathered in this way would have a story, be laced with a sense of adventure, and intensify consumers’ connections with the natural world.

It is time to put the era of Big Food behind us and to begin designing instead for Big Experiences. We can design more deliberate food experiences that engage our senses and give us a visceral sense of delight, which we can then savor and share with others. For me, there is no better example of this than the labor of love that is baking a loaf of sourdough bread. Ideally, you begin this process by grinding our from grain that has been sourced from a local farmer. This sensual act of labor continues with the kneading and shaping of the dough; the pure pleasure of the warm, sweet smell as the bread is removed from the oven; the primal enjoyment of tearing into the bread; the delicious crunch of the crust and buttery softness when you bite into it; and the joy that comes from watching others consume it. No matter what technology infuses the food industry, eating is, at its heart, a physical experience that recalls the needs and desires of our ape ancestors. We become invested in what we are eating, and in this investment, we find both physical and emotional nourishment.

And that’s what the food industry should be: an enabler of beautiful food experiences. Using insight, foresight, and strategy, we need to ask ourselves one firm question: How can we balance the scales of a historically damaging industry so that all people are healthy, nourished, and able to eat with purpose?

the author

Scott Friedmann

Scott Friedmann is Chief Innovation Office at Idea Couture. See Scott’s full bio here.